4233 - Animism and the Puzzle of Restricted but Expansive Humanity. An Example from Esmeraldas, Ecuador

Spear-fishing is central to what Chachi people refer to as ‘living well’. Being an inept fisher is simply unthinkable for these indigenous inhabitants of Esmeraldas, a lowland region on the Pacific Coast. Quichua highlanders, who occasionally visit the area but generally cannot swim or use a spear, are characterised as ‘clumsy ones’. As such, they are excluded from humanity - they are not ‘real people’ or gente verdadera, as it is expressed in local Spanish. Only Chachi people - those who know how to live well - are truly human. Indeed, that is why they designate themselves as chachi, literally ‘us, the human beings’. What characterises their notion of humanity, then, is its peculiar restrictedness. Paradoxically, however, the notion also appears to be remarkably expansive. Chachi spear-fishers sometimes envisage the crustaceans, fish and turtles they hunt as people living in underwater houses, wearing clothes (they perceive their own scales and carapaces as garments), and celebrating rituals that mirror those of humans. Yet, this expansive notion of humanity is only relevant during shamanic sessions and in the period before the big yearly marriage festival. This paper shows that a better understanding of these specific conditions resolves the apparent contradiction between restricted and expansive notions of humanity. It will emerge that for indigenous people such as the Chachi, humanity is fundamentally open. Even the clumsiest Quichua (or ethnographer for that matter) may eventually be included, provided they learn to swim, develop their fishing skills and - more generally - live well.

Keywords: Animism, notions of humanity, Chachi Indians

Author: Praet, Istvan (Roehampton University, United Kingdom/Ver Königr)


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